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Friday, September 17, 2010 by Cliff Stainsby

If you fly by jet you kill?

If you fly by jet you kill?

Cliff Stainsby, a long time Dogwood supporter, recently authored the paper "You Fly You Kill."

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Humans emit huge quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These gases are accumulating and causing climate change. Climate change currently kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and devastates the lives of hundreds of millions more. 

This death and destruction is due, largely, to extreme weather events including droughts, heat waves, fires, floods, and storms. Although no one of these events can be attributed conclusively to climate change, they are exactly the types of events predicted by climate scientists for over 20 years now.

Greenhouse gases are emitted from a variety of sources, primarily from the burning of oil, gas, and coal, and from land use changes due to agriculture and the destruction of forests. Effectively, our entire civilization is built around these fuels and activities. As a result, dramatically reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases requires a difficult, massive, collective effort. This includes redesigning and retrofitting our urban centres, redesigning and rebuilding our transportation systems, and relocalizing and rebuilding our food production systems. 

However, particularly in high income, high greenhouse gas emitting industrialized countries, individuals control significant quantities of emissions. In British Columbia individuals exert significant control over about 1/3 of the province’s emissions. This includes emissions from space heating and cooling, water heating, appliances, lighting, and cars and trucks.

Dr. Brown, an ethics professor at Penn State University, argues that if climate change and its predicted harms are plausible, and if the victims and potential victims of climate change have not consented to suffer these harms, then society has a moral duty to act to prevent climate change.

I add the claim that if the above conditions are met then individuals have a moral duty to reduce their emissions as well. I suggest that this moral duty applies:

if an individual’s greenhouse gas emissions from an action are large compared to:

  • annual emissions largely under the individual’s control;
  • individual emissions among affected populations;
  • a fair per capita individual emissions target consistent with avoiding dangerous human caused greenhouse gas emissions; in other words, a target based on sustainable greenhouse gas emission levels;


if the action causing the emissions is voluntary and unnecessary.

There may be several such actions. However, because of its impacts, I focus on  flying by jet on vacation. The facts clearly reveal that such flying is an immoral act. It is completely under individual control. The per-passenger emissions are immense compared to those of large, affected populations, for example those in Africa and Pakistan. Per passenger emissions are immense, also, compared to per capita sustainable greenhouse gas emission targets. And, clearly, neither those suffering today nor future generations, who are likely to suffer much more, have consented to or encouraged this suffering.

Flying for a vacation is particularly egregious, a reprehensible self-indulgence by the well off at the expense of the impoverished and future generations; and those who fly on vacation contribute directly to the death and destruction of other people. In other words, if you fly by jet you kill.

Killing is one thing, perhaps sometimes justifiable, sometimes unavoidable. But killing is not justifiable if done casually.

Jet flying for an unnecessary indulgence, for one’s own pleasure, for a vacation, showing complete disregard for the people whose lives are ended or devastated as a result, is tantamount to murder.

Murder is a harsh word. But harsh words are apt; climate change kills in a very harsh manner, and presages a very harsh future for billions of people.

A full copy of Cliff's paper can be downloaded by clicking here.


Cliff Stainsby is a retired researcher from the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union. He has been an environmental activist for over 30 years. Cliff worked for the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (SPEC) for eight years in the 1970s and 1980s; for six of those years he was the Executive Director. He also served a term as President of SPEC. After SPEC, Cliff moved to Solidarity Coalition, and worked in the union movement for over 20 years. His work focuses on environment and economics and on bringing environmental groups and unions together to work on issues.

Alan Hedley says:
Sep 23, 2010 12:39 PM
Have you been to London, Paris, and Rome? I have. Tokyo and Hong Kong? Yes. What about Sydney and Buenos Aires? I have visited these beautiful cities too – all by commercial jet. Were these trips necessary? It depends upon how good my ability to rationalize is. I worked in London and Sydney; I attended conferences in Paris, Rome, Tokyo, and Hong Kong; and I flew to Buenos Aires (and other South American capital cities) simply because I wanted to.

Was it absolutely necessary for me to fly to any of these cities? No. So why did I do it?

For one thing, my international jet travels began in 1966 and ended in 2005 – mostly before climate change became mainstream and recognized as severe and caused largely by human-induced emissions.

I am now 70 years old, circumstances have changed, and in 2005 my wife and I made a (moral) decision that we would no longer fly (or travel by cruise ship).

Great! So does this mean, as Cliff Stainsby suggests, that no one should fly, just because s/he wants to experience the richness of human cultures and the magnificence of the planet we inhabit? And most importantly, is this fair to younger generations?

I suggest we take Mr. Stainsby’s comments seriously: if we dismiss them, the consequences of human habitation on planet Earth could very well result in our demise. However, each of us, as individuals, as members of our community, and as global citizens, have a constellation of choices and actions by which we can act responsibly – or not. To deny the younger generations the opportunity to travel is to deny them their responsibility and right to make their own choices within the parameters their circumstances.
Cliff Stainsby says:
Sep 27, 2010 12:44 PM
I appreciate the comments from Alan Hedley. However, in response, a couple of points are in order.
First, I agree that it is grossly unfair to younger generations to deny them the right to fly. It is also unfair to future generations that recent generations have decimated marine fish populations, caused massive species extinctions, caused the erosion of hundreds of billions of tons of topsoil, destroyed immense areas of wetlands, emptied untold numbers of crucial fresh water aquifers, distributed virtually indestructible plastics all over the planet and much, much more. It is grossly unfair that our ecological footprint has been so large and destructive that future generations will have a tough time adapting to the devastation. Unfortunately, those who fly, young or old, only make the situation tougher for those who will live during the rest of this century and beyond.
Since atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are already well beyond safe levels, it is difficult to imagine how we can both fly and reduce emissions to safe levels. While prohibiting flying may seem unfair to future generations, it is not nearly so unfair as continuing to fly; in fact, it is likely essential to their well being.
The point of my essay was not advocate that flying on vacation by jet be prohibited, (I do think it should be) but to suggest that it is a highly immoral act and that people ought to make the individual moral choice not to fly by jet on vacation. My hope, faint though it is, is that once people understand that flying by jet on vacation is morally reprehensible, tantamount to murder, that they will make the choice not to fly. I mean, who in good conscience can deliberately choose to commit murder; to contend, in effect, that a vacation is more important than the lives of other people – those currently suffering the consequences of global warming and those who will do so in the future. I, for one, cannot understand those who make such a moral choice.
And very importantly, not all people, including young people, can take advantage of flying on vacation. Most of the world’s population is too poor to even have the choice to fly on vacation. Those people who fly, the young included, will continue to cause death and destruction in many parts of the world. That is grossly unfair to these people; people who not only never will get the chance to fly, but whose impoverished circumstances will only get worse due to the climate change that flying exacerbates.
We cannot possibly deny younger generations “their responsibility and right to make their own choices within the parameters [of] their circumstances.” However, flying is one of a great number of current behaviours, that if continued would dramatically impoverish the circumstances within which future generations will have to exercise their choices. We have, I suggest, a collective and individual moral responsibility to leave them the best possible circumstances, viable life support systems at the very least. And, if flying results in greenhouse gas emissions that are inconsistent with leaving viable circumstances, and it most certainly does, then we must prohibit or sharply curtail flying.
I never suggested denying the right to travel. I suggested that travelling by jet is unacceptable. Thousands of generations of people travelled before planes were invented.
And if, by some behavioural and/or technological good fortune, some future generation is able to eliminate the threat from climate change, then let them fly.
Also, it is my belief that getting from the current 392ppm CO2 in the atmosphere to less than 350ppm requires massive collective action to redesign and rebuild our urban centres, and our transportation and food systems. Accomplishing these essential tasks will be exceedingly difficult without exceeding the allowable 233 billion ton carbon emission budget between now and 2100. Any self indulgent, unnecessary emissions, such as those from flying on vacation, will waste precious emissions budget space and curtail our ability to make the required changes.
Cliff Stainsby
Ed Deak says:
Sep 27, 2010 07:56 PM
The last time I flew was in 1968 and haven't missed a thing since.

Today's flying is nothing more than hysteria, induced by propaganda, to make people spend, so that people can say they've been somewhere. So what ?

Then we have the incessant flights by 50 year old B 52 murder machines over our heads, here in Central BC, practicing to kill more and blowing huge amounts of pollution from their 8 jet engines, for no logical, or real human purposes.

By the way, I've lived in 4 countries and have 3 citizenships.

Ed Deak, Big Lake, BC.
Mae Moore says:
Sep 28, 2010 04:31 PM
Cliff Stainsby's assertion is something worth considering.Four and a half years ago, I read Heat by George Monbiot, in which he cites the single worst thing a person can do with regard to the environment, is fly in a jet.I bought it at the Vancouver Airport.I read it as I flew to London to perform at a festival.On my return flight I vowed to not fly again and haven't...yet. It has been difficult on my career as I am a touring musician, yet as Jackson Browne once said,"I can't have a career without a planet".I am planning a tour across Canada by easy feat as the passenger trains don't run every day nor to every city and are 4X the cost of air travel. Yet it feels better and I will get to know my country more intimately.If my family needed me in an emergency, I would fly but with full consciousness of the impact on others.
Dorothy Cutting says:
Oct 04, 2010 12:41 PM
Mae, George Monbiot's book Heat had the same effect on me. The only reason I've flown by jet since reading was to attend two memorials.

Maybe climate activists who continue to fly for vacation are subconsciously so fully aware of the truly awful climate crisis that they can't bear to think of this reality and hold it a bay by acting "normally." Sadly, the new normal has arrived, and they can't see it.

In the 2008 British/Canadian mini-series "BURN UP" (available in Region 2 format only), the Inuit scientist Mika sets herself on fire to draw attention to the plight of her people. And people did this during the Vietnam war.

So why not now? Where are the demonstrations appropriate to the enormity of the oncoming disaster? The distress now being experienced by human beings all over our planet because of climate change is appalling reason for shame. How dare we call ourselves "civilized" when we ignore this truth.

The very least we can do is to set an example by refusing to fly unless we have to. And that may have to include memorial services.
Alan Hedley says:
Oct 05, 2010 12:40 PM
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol “set binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” The Protocol only applied to “industrialized countries” for the following reason:

“Recognizing that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity, the Protocol places a heavier burden on developed nations under the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’.”

In the same vein, with respect to whether or not we as individuals should fly by jet, I suggest that younger generations because they have not had the same opportunity to visit off-continent, should not be bound by the same set of moral constraints as Cliff Stainsby proposes for all of us, regardless of age and previous jet travel.

In my previous Comment, I stated that “each of us, as individuals, as members of our community, and as global citizens, have a constellation of choices and actions by which we can act responsibly,” with regard to greenhouse gas emissions. For example, according to the 2006 FAO report on Livestock’s Long Shadow (, “The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport.”

So to a certain extent, deliberately avowed vegans, and other people who consciously practice low carbon-emitting lives, could build up enough “credits” whereby they could fly by jet.

Please don’t get me wrong; I agree with Cliff Stainsby, especially with what motivated him to write this piece in the first place. However, I don’t think we can prescribe one set of rules that unequivocally applies to all. Rather perhaps we should agree on general principles in light of changed circumstances, and then adapt our lives accordingly.
Cliff Stainsby says:
Oct 29, 2010 01:00 PM
I appreciate the above response from Alan Hedley’s latest post. Once again, though, I think he is wrong. I think he severely underestimates the difficult situation humanity faces with respect to climate change.
First, the science and reality of climate change have altered so dramatically since 1997 that the Kyoto Protocol no longer addresses the issue of climate change. In fact, it is not even in the ballpark of required initiatives. The principal changes in climate science reveal that the impacts of increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are much more imminent and dire than was thought in 1997. Thus, reduction targets now need to be much deeper for any specified target date; and nearly 100% by 2050, at the latest.
Unfortunately, despite all the international talking and conferences, emissions are increasing at record rates, and consequently we are approaching climate catastrophe at record rates. Nowhere in the world is there a response to climate change that is commensurate either with the urgency or the scale of the problem.
In this context, as I stated in my essay, current greenhouse gas emissions are inherently unsustainable. And, in this context, the fact that individuals might have reduced their emissions in some particular manner, say from not eating meat, provides no relief from the moral imperative to reduce emissions in other areas, say flying by jet on vacation.
It is a fact that flying by jet results in immense per passenger greenhouse gas emissions. Immense whether compared to British Columbians’ over all per capita emissions, the per capita emissions under the control of individual British Columbians, or the per capita emissions of people in much of the world, in particular those in Southern Asia and Africa. The scale of emissions from jet flying alone is so large that the emissions from individuals who fly are far too large to be sustainable. Such emissions are incompatible with avoiding 20C warming, no matter what other emissions reductions an individual might achieve.
If, as individuals, we continue to fly, from where will our emissions reductions come? Will we stop cooking our food, and heating and cooling and lighting our homes, and heating our water, and going to work? Not likely. But, to make up for flying by jet on even one vacation we would have to do all of the above, and more.
Simply put, flying on vacation by jet is a voluntary, unnecessary act that causes death and devastation in much of the world now and will do so increasingly in more of the world in the future. Thus, flying is morally wrong in most circumstances, and flying for vacation is wrong in all circumstances.
Again, as I said in my essay, it is unfortunate and unfair that young people, as well as poor people, here and throughout the world, should never be able to fly by jet on vacation. But, if they were to fly, it would be like burning the furniture and then the walls to heat one’s home - eventually one has no home. If we continue to emit greenhouse gases, eventually, and quite likely during the lives of some people already living, we will have no livable planetary home. Our planetary home already has massive tears in its structural fabric. It cannot tolerate a whole lot more. The responsibility for this state of affairs lays with those of us who, despite the warnings from scientists, have for many decades casually, irresponsibly, and self-indulgently emitted large quantities of greenhouse gases.
In short, flying on vacation cannot be considered a morally responsible way to act. In the current climate change context, the notion that “to a certain extent, deliberately avowed vegans, and other people who consciously practice low carbon-emitting lives, could build up enough “credits” whereby they could fly by jet” is wrong. If meat eating is incompatible with sustainability (and it may well be so, but I think not in all circumstances), the applicable response today is for the rest of us to not only stop flying but also to stop eating meat.
peedeecee says:
Nov 09, 2010 02:27 PM
Again, Mr. Stainsby has focused on flying - particularly flying on vacation, although the REASON for flying does not affect the amount of carbon being emitted. However, he makes a good point.

Let's go further: why are business people flying to conferences, when video-conferencing is globally available? Why are governments still holding conferences like the G8 and G20 (with their gigantic attendant entourages, limousines, security helicopters, etc.) when video-conferencing is available?

Shall we discuss military aircraft? Warships? Tanks?

There are many, many areas of human endeavour which damage our planet. All need to be addressed.
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